December 10, 2015
In this post Jane Hannon, assistant head of The Williams School (CT) recounts how advanced Latin students at Williams became curators and docents at a neighboring art museum as part of a school-created curriculum designed within a mission-driven framework to build cognitive and community connections as well as challenge and expand students’  IMG_4202 perspectives.

Getting Outside the Classroom Bubble

by Jane Hannon, The Williams School

“I was able to model one of our core values: a lifetime of learning.”

In the fall of 2013, The Williams School Classics Department Chair, Melissa Moss seized the opportunity to guest curate “Shaped by the Ancients,” an exhibit of rarely seen antiquities from the collection of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, our near neighbor here in New London, Connecticut. Melissa shared, “I had never done anything like this before, so the chance to learn about how to curate was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. We encourage our students to take risks, so how could I not?” When the exhibit opened in February, the faculty took the short walk down the hill to the museum, where Melissa spoke of the history of several of the pieces, explaining why she chose them among the numerous works available. Her enthusiasm was palpable and we, her colleagues, learned alongside one another about both the works of art and the curating process.

While Williams has enjoyed a close connection with the Lyman Allyn throughout our respective histories, students have experienced the museum mainly through art classes, studying the artists’ techniques and various periods represented through the works and sketching among the permanent and temporary exhibits. Over the next year, I found myself returning to thoughts of that afternoon we spent companionably wandering the exhibit, exploring ancient objects of everyday life. We were drawn in and drawn together by Melissa’s enthusiasm and sheer delight in the objects. How could we replicate and expand on this experience for our students?

Last winter, in the spirit of good neighbors, Head of School Mark Fader and I walked down the hill to introduce ourselves to Sam Quigley, the new Director of the Museum. Perhaps it was our shared connection to Chicago or the warmth of his greeting, but immediately we started talking about Melissa’s positive experience and possible ways in which we could get Williams students to engage with the collection more deeply. Sam encouraged us to have Melissa contact him to talk about her advanced Latin students, and a beautiful partnership evolved.

“Our classroom is like a bubble!”

Fast forward to this past fall. Melissa and her eight students in Latin V Advanced have worked in tandem with Jane LeGrow, Director of Exhibitions, and Tanya Pohrt, Special Project Curator, researching the Lyman Allyn’s art and artists while exploring every aspect of curation. This is part of the year-long project these young scholars will engage in as they learn about the behind-the-scenes work that happens in museums while the simultaneously add to the Lyman Allyn’s understanding of a number of pieces in its collection.

In late October, I had the opportunity to sit down with students who had just completed curating their firstmini-exhibit. They were eager to share what had gone well and what hadn’t. They recalled that at one of the check-ins with Jane LeGrow, they had talked with her about the challenges they were facing composing the museum labels to accompany the paintings they had chosen. Jane offered sound advice, telling students that a writer often has to compose the first seven sentences to get to that eighth sentence – the only one that will actually be included in the finished label.

After the research process, students honed their two- to three-page texts to fewer than 300 words – ideally getting to a mere 100 words. Senior Kaela Milewski noted, “We always revise our English IMG_4211papers, but this was for a real purpose, so it just seemed different.” Another commented, “So much of the time we think everything is already there for us; you forget that everything hasn’t been discovered!” The research process, though familiar to all of them through their academic courses, took on new meaning as they worked toward an end product for public consumption. It mattered to them in a different way – not simply for a grade. It is this real-world connection that is so often missing from the work in which students engage. As Sam Morris put it, “It’s a healthier kind of motivation.”

“Learning is messy!”

I don’t know a single teacher who would say he or she wants students to sit back and passively let knowledge come to them. That said, too often teachers revert to stand-and-deliver not because it is their preference but because they are uncertain of how to take that first leap into fully turning the learning over to their students. There is the fear of not covering as much once the teacher relinquishes control of the pace and path. Teachers are also wary of that stray visitor who comes into their room or walks by their classroom wondering aloud, “What is going on in there?” Genuine learning and exploration is messy and sometimes noisy. It is also incredibly rewarding for everyone: teachers and students learn alongside one another, creating bonds that don’t end when the bell rings, summer begins, or diplomas are conferred.

“It gave me a new sense of responsibility!”

Sometimes just a change of venue can spark creativity and leave a lasting mark. When I next visited the Latin V class, they were presenting their second pieces. Once again students had been given the IMG_5856opportunity to select a work about which the museum had limited information and which spoke to them or intrigued them in some way. The works from which they were allowed to choose are all pieces in the American Stories permanent exhibit at the Lyman Allyn. Both Jane and Tanya were available to guide the students should they get stuck, but as with their first endeavor, students were encouraged to keep digging and discover on their own.

In mid-November, Senior Michal Novak educated her classmates, museum staff, Mark, and me on Samuel Waldo’s “Goddess of Liberty Feeding an Eagle,” painted around 1805. Michal was immediately drawn to the painting, rich with symbolism which is one of many copies of a late 1700s print. She walked us through the painting’s history, significance, and her interpretation of its meaning and importance. As Michal finished her presentation, she spoke about the objects in the painting and what they represent, connecting them back to her study of ancient Greece and Rome. Reflecting on the experience, Michal commented, “There are different layers to everything even though it may seem somewhat simple. I’m not just talking about art.” Again I walked out of the Lyman Allyn invigorated and more knowledgeable – this time it was one of our students who had created this moment.

Throughout the year, Melissa’s students will wrestle with Vergil’s Aeneid, expand their knowledge of Roman history and literature, and learn unfamiliar advanced grammatical structures and new IMG_4193vocabulary. These are all aspects of the Latin V Advanced curriculum. Reaching far beyond the restrictive parameters of the traditional Advanced Placement curriculum, Melissa and her students will research and write extensively during the museum component of the class. They will also discover the works at the museum down the hill and add to the understanding of these works not only for themselves but also for current and future visitors to the museum. These students are engaging in advanced study not for a test but for life. Her students are discovering, just as Melissa, had that the curating process is exhausting but also exhilarating.

But isn’t that what living in the real world is like?

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